Everybody remembers their first time. Right? No, not "that" first time. I mean the first autopsy you attended. My first was in 1982. I was new to the Crimes of Violence Unit.
After I had been in the assignment a week my phone rang about 10 p.m. and I was suddenly a real homicide detective. The case was simple enough so my boss, Sgt. Paul Thompson, made me the lead investigator.
A man strangled his wife, went for a walk, came home and called the police to report what he had done. Not to be callous, but this was a simple case for a rookie homicide detective to handle. It would be tough to screw this one up.
The husband’s motive floored me. He told the patrol officer he killed her because he thought she was the devil.
Actually, she was a pretty 23-year old pre-school teacher who also taught piano. The killer was a gentle, soft-spoken (kind of wimpy) 26-year old guy.
Because of my Catholic seminary background, Sgt. Thompson thought the Satan angle was right up my alley. I went over every detail with the killer. I asked about any sight, sound, smell, words, or actions on her part that made him think she was the devil. Nothing he said made sense. In layman’s terms, I thought he was nuts.
We booked him and took the case to the D.A. who scheduled an immediate psychological exam in jail.
The doctor called me and said “He’s nuts.”
I gave the phone number of the victim’s family in Colorado to the coroner’s investigator for the death notification.
“Our job is to notify the next of kin,” he said. “The killer is the next of kin. He already knows.”
So, I made my very first death notification, and it was traumatic for me, not to mention the poor family.
Because this was my case, I attended the autopsy. Actually, because I was the rookie I went to all of the autopsies that year whether they were mine or not. We worked all night and the autopsy was at 8 a.m. I was afraid I would get sick, faint, or just plain die and they would have to do an autopsy on me right after the victim.
Supervising lab technician Bill Johnson packed his photography suitcase and away we went to the coroner’s office.
The pathologist was the late Dr. Frank Raasch. That autopsy could have doubled as a medical school lecture. Dr. Raasch was thorough and meticulous. I was very impressed. He explained everything he did, taking care to allow for questions from me and to allow Bill Johnson to take the necessary photos.
I took notes for my report. Because it was a simple autopsy, Dr. Raasch completed it in about two hours. That is the norm. In complicated cases involving trace evidence and mysterious deaths, autopsies can sometimes take days.
Thoroughness is the order of the day. No pathologist likes to be second-guessed or proven wrong at a later date over something missed.
When we were done, I was exhausted. Previous fears of fainting aside, I was now hungry. So, Bill and I stopped for breakfast. I was pleasantly surprised that my appetite was intact. I demolished an omelet, orange wedges, hash browns, English muffin and a couple cups of coffee before heading back to the station.
The killer was found to be insane and was committed to a mental hospital. I never followed up on what became of him in this very sad case.
My first trip to the coroner’s office was memorable. The single-story facility was old, smelled bad, and cramped. Coroner Dave Stark was a former embalmer who was elected to the office. He did a good job with what he had. The board of supervisors didn’t give him enough money to run a top notch enterprise.
Next week: The Coroner morphs into the Medical Examiner and gets new digs.